Day 6 – Tuesday, May 31, 2017
Kudu don’t just run up to you and say, “shoot me”. I’m here to tell you, kudu hunting at Ongangasemba Ranch is a challenging hunt. And a half.
But of course I love that and wouldn’t have it any other way. There are so many oryx here, you can get them on many days if you try hard and shoot straight. Not that they’re easy to hunt, they have great eyes and are very cagey. There are just a lot of them, and they frequent slightly more open country than the kudu.
I love the oryx. To me, they epitomize Namibia. They are ideally suited to this environment. They are desert dwellers, and can go days without water. If you come here, you should hunt them, and you will likely have success.
But with the grey ghost, there are no such guarantees. Immo won’t let you shoot a young kudu bull, which show themselves more readily. The old bulls use the landscape to maximum effect here. There is a lot of acacia thorn bush. In many places it’s so thick, you’d have to crawl on your hands and knees to get through. You aren’t finding them in that stuff.
The kudu like the bush but the bush doesn’t like you!
So you have to hunt the edges, the trails, the meadows, or my favorite, the mountains. I crave being up on the rocky ridges. It is the one time I feel like we have an advantage on the kudu. From above you can see into the bush, and the kudu don’t see you, as long as you don’t stand up on top of a rock and do a workout routine.
I was hoping when I came here that this kudu mission wouldn’t be too easy. Mission accomplished on that front!
But there is so much sign, there are so many kudu here, and that makes it feel so promising. I have been on moose and elk hunts at home where you weren’t seeing animals and there was very little sign. That just feels hopeless, but this isn’t like that. They are here and you know they are watching you. We just need one to make a mistake.
And right now we need to find our kudu again. With kudu rock firmly in the rearview, we head north to see if they went that-a-way.
We drive slow, looking for fresh tracks and find something better, a kudu cow. I spot her back in the trees up against a rocky ridge. We glass the area, and find one other cow but no bull, so we continue.
Not very much further along, Kiewied says stop. We get out to look at what he says is a very large male leopard track.
We get out to inspect it. I love that there are leopards here. Not because I would shoot one, but just knowing they are here.
Large predators like the leopards, cheetahs and hyenas are a symbol of the wild to me. Hey, I understand they aren’t sacred, they need to be managed and are hunted and I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t shoot one, but then again, there are a lot of things I wouldn’t shoot over here.
The lions, giraffes, rhinos are in a different class of animal to me. I don’t think it unethical for a human to shoot them, if it is sustainable and controlled and if the meat is treasured. But it’s just not for me. I don’t see them as prey. Hunting antelope, I understand that. They look and taste like food to me. That’s probably because they are similar to the game I hunt at home for meat. I suspect a lot of hunters from Canada would feel that way.
But there is something about knowing the leopards are out there, that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck from time to time. They can kill you. They probably won’t, but they easily could. A gazelle would have a hard time killing me, I am betting on the chubby Canadian in that cage match. But a leopard is beautiful, and powerful and awesome. I’m glad he’s here.
Its not unlike the feeling I get when sea kayak fishing in Hawaii with Boogie Dave (another long story I need to write). Just knowing there are 800 pound tiger sharks in the water with you gives the whole thing an edge that makes you feel totally alert and alive.
Look, you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than ever having a problem with any leopard or tiger shark. But that’s not the point. The slim chance you may cross paths with something bigger, stronger and more dangerous than you, it makes the ocean, and Africa, mysterious and wonderful.
And anything can and does happen here. I often think of Leonardo DiCaprio’s line in Blood Diamond: “my brother, this is Africa, anything can happen. TIA bro”. It’s like that here, TIA. This is Africa.
With that bit of melo-drama behind us, we continue looking. We come to a kudu-ish looking spot, a bushy, dry river run. This is another good habitat for kudu. Given there is more moisture along the dry river beds, more and bigger trees grow here and the kudu use it as cover to live their secretive lives. You’re secret’s out kudu, we’re coming in!
Kiewied and I sneak down the dry river. It is primo stalking in here, like a silent and deadly meat highway. The dry river sand is soft and so we are silent, and double deadly, since we have the wind in our faces too.
We come across a fresh track. We start to follow it and it takes us up out of the river area and into some thorn patches. We come across what looks like a watermelon. I ask Kiewied if we can eat it and he says heck no. It’s awful but the oryx will eat it.
The tracks make a big circle, downwind. Uh oh. The bull and cow get downwind of us, hate our hunter-stench and head for the hills. They probably knew we were following them but didn’t quite know what we were so they circled and let their noses tell them. Deer do this to us at home all the time. God love them.
We head for the other end of the ranch to check some areas we’d been to in previous days and seen tracks.
As we bounce along, I am getting hungry and tired. The strain of looking into every bush has worn on me a bit. The sun, the wind and staying focused all the time has fried my eyes, sunny side up. For the first time, I slack off and just daydream.
It is way past noon and my stomach is growling. Jeezus, I think, when is Immo gonna stop for a lunch break? It is hot, the antelope will be bedded in the shade and we should be too. Then we turn a corner, and there is a kudu. Immo’s persistence pays off. Always trust your guide.
We glass the bushes and there are two bulls and a bunch of cows. A breeding harem. The one bull looks young and the other bull looks old, but it’s hard to tell. A shot from the truck is possible, but out of the question. It is legal to shoot from the truck here in Namibia, but no old bull will die that way by our hands. To me, that would be a disservice to the grey ghost.
They move off towards a distant ridge. I’m sure we’re all thinking the same thing: get around to the other side. Immo picks his way through trails to get us around back. We come to a dry ravine. Rather than bump, bounce and bang noisily through, we opt to jump out and hustle the rest of the way. My hunger pangs are replaced with adrenaline. Could this be our chance?
Kiewied and I hustle and slow jog through the brush. We get a little ripped by the thorns, but we can see the ridge to our left and we gotta get there before they do. There is a natural dip or saddle in the ridge and without talking we both point to it. That is the obvious spot where they’ll probably cross.
We increase our speed but it is touchy business. The ground is covered in rocks. These darned Namibian rocks are roundish. So if you step on them, they roll and so does your ankle. I remind myself to be extra careful cause a sprained ankle ends this hunt.
We pick our way through and get to the ridge. We climb the high side of the ridge, overlooking the saddle so we can see down and into the bush back there. These stone ridges and mountains are challenging to climb quietly. It’s like Mother Nature dumped these large boulder piles loosely yesterday and she hasn’t quite finished getting them settled yet. Any wrong step on a teetering boulder and you’ve got a loud rockslide and you can kiss that old bull goodbye.
I am breathing really hard now and actually sweating. Kiewied is up ahead of me and isn’t even panting. I breath deep and try to get air, cause you can’t make a long shot breathing hard. The scope won’t settle.
We get to the top and carefully peek over. A huge, vast landscape opens up to us. We can see the bushes in the distance the kudu were in when we first spotted them, and they lead right to the saddle. But no kudu.
We look hard with our binos in all directions. Where could they have gone, how did we miss them?
They aren’t in the saddle, but something else is: a large band of baboons. Gawd I hate baboons. On my last trip in ’96, these Gawdforsaken animals terrorized me. I was tenting in campgrounds across Africa and they were always sneaking in and stealing or breaking my stuff. They would yell at me, I would yell at them. We never saw eye to eye.
“RRRRRRaaawwwwwww”, a big, nasty male lets out a roar. Oh, that’s just great you rotten bugger. Kiewied and I raise our fists and gesture to these dudes to get outta here. They gesture back. If this primate standoff wasn’t so bad for our hunt, it would be priceless. But we’re in no mood. We’ve been hustling, looking and grinding for days. Get outta here you horrendous creatures.
They are rude, obnoxious and stubborn, like a few people I know back home. Mercifully, the nasty baboons grudgingly head off, casting angry glances over their shoulders. Good riddance.
We get back to glassing. My stomach growls. I snagged a few cookies from the truck when we hastily departed, so Kiewied and I munch on them as we continue looking.
Time goes by. We scour every bush and rock for as far as we can see in every direction. It isn’t looking good. Kiewied stands and says we should go down to the saddle and hunt the bush back towards the spot they came from. But it is too small a distance, we both know they wouldn’t have stopped that quickly after first seeing us in the truck. But we have to try.
To the east, along the front of the ridge, there is a long zone of open, dead thorn bush. Kiewied says they wouldn’t go that way so we haven’t looked there much. He starts moving. I start glassing that area.
Where the dead thorn bush meets the ridge I see something a bit out of place in the shade of one bush, a short bit of horizontal white. Odd. I look closer. Can it be the back of a kudu bedded down? I doubt it.
Kiewied motions that we have to get moving. For the first time on this hunt, I ignore the master.
I look harder around the spot and see it. The leg of another kudu under a bush.
“I see them, I found them Kiewied!”. Even if we don’t shoot a kudu, at this point I am triumphant. I found them.
Kiewied’s eyes are singing and he has a wide smile on his face. “Very good RRRRob, very good”, he says. My heart starts to race. This is it. I can feel it.
We carefully sneak back on the side of the ridge out of view of the kudu. But not before we look down the ridge and pick a few landmarks up top that line up with where the kudu are below. This is key and often forgotten by new hunters. When you come down from the top, it all looks different and you have no way of knowing where to go back up for a shot.
We move down the rocks. The wind gusts, it is in our faces, blowing from the kudu to us. They can’t smell us. This is perfect, it’s happening. My heart is racing, it is all coming down to this moment. I need to focus.
We are very careful on the rocks. They are all teetering and unreliable. We go slow, the kudu have no idea we are coming and they are bedded down. They aren’t expecting us to be coming from behind them. They are expecting danger from the direction they came from.
We get to an old tree that we know is the spot. My heart is hammering now. My head is pounding. I motion for Kiewied to stop. I want to catch my breath. This could be our only chance, let’s not mess it up.
We inch up the rocks. We get to the top and look over. Nothing. What the heck?? What now? Did they hear us? They couldn’t have smelled us.
We inch higher and settle in with our binoculars. “There! Koei (female in Afrikaans)”, says Kiewied. I look and look but can’t see her. “The bull, shoot him!”, he hisses. What?! Where?!
I panic a bit, I have no idea where he is looking and our language barrier is for the first time, a barrier.
I look and look and finally see her. They have moved closer, tight to the base of the ridge. They are eating kudu bush right below us.
“Where is the bull?”, I ask.
“Behind the bush, just wait”, Kiewied replies.
We settle in for some time and watch the cow. I can only see her neck and head. She is only 80 yards away so we need to be very careful cause she could see our face and it will all be blown.
A second cow’s head appears and I suddenly feel very calm. I admire the cows and watch them eat. They have long, graceful necks. They are spectacularly beautiful. We have only to this point gotten short glimpses of them. This is the first time I can watch them relaxed, eating, living……just being kudu.
“There he is!”, hisses Kiewied. “He’s coming out”. With that I snap back to it. My eyes fall on the bull. My eyes lock on him. He is spectacular. He is regal and massive. I try to ignore him and look for the spot behind his shoulder. But he is behind some bushes.
“Shoot!”, says Kiewied. But there is no good shot. Too many thorny branches that could deflect the bullet and miss him or worse, just injure him.
He takes two steps forward.
I look at him closely and by some kind of miracle, there is a hole in the bush, the size of a coffee cup, right behind his shoulder. There is a ray of light shining through it, making a sunspot on him. The hair stands up on my neck. I am electric and focused and totally calm.
My crosshairs find the spot. Kiewied is saying something but I don’t hear him, only the thud, thud, thud of my heartbeats hammering inside my head. This is it. I quietly whisper thanks. To the bull and to Mother Nature for showing him to us.
I breathe out a long breath. My finger tightens on the trigger. The report of the rifle surprises me. I hear a loud thu-whack.
Now the bull is running forward. I can’t tell if I hit the spot so I chamber another round and find the running bull. I fire when the crosshairs are where I think they need to be and hear another very loud hit. He makes a half turn and is down.
Now I am shaking. Kiewied and I hug. It’s over. I can’t believe it.
The cows, a calf and young bull trot out from the kudu bush and head away. I sit and watch them leave. They are beautiful in the afternoon sun.
I sit for a moment processing what just happened. I can’t stop looking down in the bushes at the distant outline of the bull. I can’t quite believe it. It’s all a blur now.
We find our way through thorn bushes to the bull. I am overwhelmed by his size and beauty. He is massive and gorgeous, just like I imagined him to be in this moment. I can see now both shots were lethal.
We take some pictures and we both sit in silence admiring this animal, a king of the hills of Ongangasemba. He is a very old bull. He is huge and his horns are spectacularly high and wide. The markings on his face, look, well….African. The white stripes look like some kind of African tribal face paint.
Kiewied leaves to go meet Immo at a trail in the distance and to try to find a way in here with the Landcruiser. That would be a godsend because packing this giant out in pieces would be doable but daunting, especially in the afternoon heat.
When Kiewied leaves, I sit in silence with my hand on the bull. It is an emotional moment for me. For whatever reason, I think of my recently departed parents. I also think of my wife and son, my family and friends…I am overcome with gratitude for the good life I am living. The wind is blowing through the thorn trees. I lean against the bull and look up at the bluest sky I can remember seeing in a very, very long time.
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